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Researchers Try To "Close the Nutrient Cycle" Through Better Waste Recycling

samzenpus posted about 7 months ago | from the using-everything dept.

Earth 112

An anonymous reader writes "Converting human waste into usable fertilizer may become the next important development in sustainable living. 'Most conventional farms invest in synthetic fertilizer, which requires energy to produce and is associated with many environmental problems of its own. But by separating out human urine before it gets to the wastewater plant, Rich Earth cofounder Kim Nace says they can turn it into a robust fertilizer alternative: a "local, accessible, free, sanitary source of nitrogen and phosphorous."'"

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New Meaning to the phrase: (0)

rmdingler (1955220) | about 7 months ago | (#46139649)

Hmmm... honey, this tastes like sh*t!

Re:New Meaning to the phrase: (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139779)

A colleague of mine works on phopshorus (P) removal from waste water treatment plants. In his presentations he always talks about the P lost down the toilet, how much that costs to treat and how much could be made recovering it and selling it for fertilizer, and then throws out the phrase "there's a gold mine of P in there". The crowd never seems to know how to take that.

Re:New Meaning to the phrase: (2)

Mystakaphoros (2664209) | about 7 months ago | (#46139789)

Make it rain, baby.

Re:New Meaning to the phrase: (3, Funny)

Forbo (3035827) | about 7 months ago | (#46141213)

Chocolate rain...
Some stay dry, others feel the pain.

Re:New Meaning to the phrase: (2)

jellomizer (103300) | about 7 months ago | (#46142561)

What do you think "Organic" food is grown from?

Manure has been a source for fertilizers for many centuries.

Human waste has the issues is the fact that Humans are a dirty animal, and our germs that makes us sick, will spread to make other people sick.

Night Soil (5, Informative)

ObsessiveMathsFreak (773371) | about 7 months ago | (#46139651)

I believe "nightsoil men" used to sell the human waste they carried away to tanners and farmers. In any case, the idea of using human waste as fertiliser is very a very old one. The massive wastage of human sewage is probably a modern phenomenon.

Re:Night Soil (5, Informative)

Savage-Rabbit (308260) | about 7 months ago | (#46139739)

I believe "nightsoil men" used to sell the human waste they carried away to tanners and farmers. In any case, the idea of using human waste as fertiliser is very a very old one. The massive wastage of human sewage is probably a modern phenomenon.

Not entirely but the extent to which we fail to recycle human excrement and urine is quite new. Many ancient societies used human waste for fertiliser although that can be a health hazard. In Roman times tanners, people who dyed cloth and other such businesses actually had pissoires [wikipedia.org] outside their shops and big signs inviting customers to please come over and relieve themselves. Apparently tanners and dyers processed the urine to get Ammonia rich solutions which they used to prepare their products. I remember a QI episode where Stephen Fry dropped this fact-bit about how the House of Lords in London used to reek of stale piss on rainy days because of the quantities of urine used to in the production of tweed fabric which was popular with the upper classes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Re:Night Soil (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 7 months ago | (#46139811)

Watching The Worst Jobs in History [wikipedia.org] is educational, too. Tanning and gong farming were covered there. ;-)

Re:Night Soil (2)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 7 months ago | (#46139925)

Apparently tanners and dyers processed the urine to get Ammonia rich solutions which they used to prepare their products.

Urine was also widely used for cleaning (in the Middle Ages that I know of, and probably other times). It's not surprising, when you consider that ammonia is used for cleaning today. Methinks an important step was to thoroughly rinse things after cleaning.

Re:Night Soil (2)

rahvin112 (446269) | about 7 months ago | (#46141883)

I large cities with unknown pathogens throughout using human waste on ANY product that humans will eat is a recipe for a massive health epidemic. Pathogens such as hepatitis can survive the treatment process and remain live in the compost. This doesn't even take into account all the other stuff that's in the waste stream, from the soap you used in the shower to the drano you poured down the sink to clear it. Wastewater is dangerous stuff, it should be properly treated and then processed into very fertilizer (at least in my area it's highly expensive) that's sold to parks and farms that grow products not for human consumption.

Re:Night Soil (4, Informative)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 7 months ago | (#46139773)

The night soil was untreated, though, and therefore extremely dangerous for public health. Also, they were dealing with feces, and urine is less dangerous even when untreated.

Re:Night Soil (5, Informative)

retroworks (652802) | about 7 months ago | (#46140331)

The nightsoilmen (toshers) processes, while imperfect, were much less toxic than what they were replaced by - Whitehead's flush toilet (which drove them out of business). The outflow from flush toilets in London were directed into the same dry pits as the toshers worked from, making the pits impossible to manage. With no downstream plan for the new flush toilet technology, "The Great Stink of London" came from the stormwater runoff into the Thames, which caused thousands of death in cholera epidemics.

You are right, the work should not perhaps be romanticized, but was not given any incentive to improve... it was flushed away by the new million dollar flushable toilet technology industry. The fact is that the toshers/nightsoil industry created better than average pay in London, certainly much better than blackleg coal mining. But the marketers of "flush toilet technology" stigmatized them, and the sewage treatment plants of today are seen by many in the environmental community as a "correction" to a technological advance. http://retroworks.blogspot.com... [blogspot.com]

During the mid 1800s another "technological advance" was the sale of mercury as a laxative. I guess it gives great bowel movements (Lewis and Clark's expedition can be tracked today by the mercury laxative residue - they ate a lot of elk and not much fiber). What I find fascinating are the parallels between the toshers and the past decade of private sector electronic waste management. Most of the "export market" buyers of used CRTs turned out to be not primitive wire burners but factories formerly licensed by Proview, BenQ, Wistron, Foxconn etc., which were purchasing very specific models of CRT for refurbishment and sale to markets like Cairo, Lagos, Jakarta and New Dehli. Like the nightsoil workers, they were flooded with product and then denigrated as "primitive recycling". The CRTs were diverted to a shredding industry designed for scrap metal. Leaded glass cullet doesn't shred well, and the glass diverted from reuse private markets still lies around. At one of the largest sites, in Hallstead PA, floodwaters engulfed the CRT cullet piles twice in the past decade, leading to the closure of the recycling facility last summer. http://resource-recycling.com/... [resource-recycling.com]

Re:Night Soil (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139801)

"The massive wastage of human sewage is probably a modern phenomenon." I can tell you, from a wonderful tour of the Stickney sewage treatment plant outside of Chicago, that in the 70's the solid-waste output was determined to be too contaminated with cadmium to be safe for human food crops. Cadmium comes from the blue dye in jeans, which is washed away in the laundry.

Nowdays, as a poster below has pointed out, pharma and it's metabolites will probably be the challenge.

Re:Night Soil (4, Interesting)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 7 months ago | (#46139871)

>quote>Nowdays, as a poster below has pointed out, pharma and it's metabolites will probably be the challenge.

That's quite a different problem. Cadmium is an element. Pharmaceuticals and their metabolic products are organic, and consist of the same elements as the desired stuff. Unlike cadmium, you can often get rid of them simply by applying high-enough temperatures.

Re:Night Soil (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139961)

Here's another challenge: learn that it's means it is. Can you handle that massive, revolutionary, paradigm-shifting Earth-shattering concept?

Re:Night Soil (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140201)

Your a dick.

Night Soil and beyond (1)

Paul Fernhout (109597) | about 7 months ago | (#46139805)

Yes, especially in China: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N... [wikipedia.org]

Which is part of how they have been "Farmers of 40 Centuries": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F... [wikipedia.org]

I've been interested in this from the point of view of space colonies. Biosphere II did this:
http://www.janepoynter.com/doc... [janepoynter.com]
http://www.globalecotechnics.c... [globalecotechnics.com]
http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11... [nytimes.com]
http://b2science.org/news/1453 [b2science.org]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C... [wikipedia.org]

As did John Todd at Ocean Arks commercially for towns needing sewage treatment:
http://www.oceanarksint.org/in... [oceanarksint.org]

Here is another idea though, grinding up rock to make fertilizer, to mimic the way land around volcanoes remains fertile from the volcanic ash:
http://remineralize.org/ [remineralize.org]

Re:Night Soil and beyond (4, Interesting)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 7 months ago | (#46139879)

To the countries listed in your first link, I'd add Korea. My father was there in the late 1940's with the US Army, and he said human waste was widely used as fertilizer (Korea was a very different place back then). The army even offered their waste to the locals (an offer genuinely meant to be helpful), but the farmers said that Americans used too much toilet paper.

Re your 2nd link, it's interesting that even in 1909 there were Americans who were interested in how there are parts of East Asia where the same fields have been used for millennia, and are quite productive.

Obviously using raw human waste is a major health problem, but processed stuff works great. The National Geographic article mentions urine in specific, apparently because it takes less energy and effort to separate out the useful stuff. It surprises me that it "contains 80 percent of the nitrogen and 55 percent of the phosphorous", because I usually think of manure being used for fertilizer. Does the animal urine go to waste, or is it used by, for example, having livestock graze in fallow fields?

Re:Night Soil and beyond (1)

Paul Fernhout (109597) | about 7 months ago | (#46140959)

Thanks for the informative reply. On livestock, sadly with so many Confined Animal Feeding Operations, it seems their waste from CAFOs will go to "waste" in huge lagoons? But I'm not sure if that is just manure or whether the urine goes into such lagoons too. From:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/... [huffingtonpost.com]
http://www.nrdc.org/water/poll... [nrdc.org]
"According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit environmental advocacy group, these lagoons often break, leak or overflow, allowing microbes from animal waste to seep into the ground and contaminate air and water supplies."

I've read half the water in the USA is polluted by livestock production (not sure if that is true).

Re:Night Soil and beyond (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46142727)

Korea still uses human sewage to fertilize the rice paddies. In June through early September (possibly longer, my several trips there have all been during the summer) the whole countryside smells like human waste (with overtones of kimchi). To be fair, Koreans that I've talked to, whom have had the displeasure of using U.S. port-a-potties, have remarked that American human waste has a bit of "sour milk" smell to it.

Modern Day Equivalent (3, Funny)

TWX (665546) | about 7 months ago | (#46139937)

I believe "nightsoil men" used to sell the human waste they carried away to tanners and farmers. In any case, the idea of using human waste as fertiliser is very a very old one. The massive wastage of human sewage is probably a modern phenomenon.

In efforts to expand our recycling program:

  • Compostable yard waste goes into the beige bin.
  • Clean, recycled paper goes into the blue bin.
  • Clean glass goes into the green bin.
  • Aluminum cans and metal products go into the orange bin.
  • Human and animal feces go into the brown bin.
  • Human and animal urine go into the yellow bin.
  • Medical waste, bandages, and used feminine hygiene products go into the red bin.

Thank you for your mandatory participation in our municipal recycling program.

Re:Modern Day Equivalent (1)

queazocotal (915608) | about 7 months ago | (#46140015)

Those that object to the municipal recycling service go in the purple bin.

Re:Modern Day Equivalent (1)

PlusFiveTroll (754249) | about 7 months ago | (#46140609)

I thought that was the Soylent Green bin?

Re:Modern Day Equivalent (1)

Megane (129182) | about 7 months ago | (#46140141)

...and the man who empties the bins dumps them all into a garbage truck with only a single bin.

Re:Night Soil (1)

TWiTfan (2887093) | about 7 months ago | (#46140165)

In any case, the idea of using human waste as fertiliser is very a very old one.

Yeah, so are the cholera and other diseases that used to come with open sewers and untreated waste. You have to be very careful with how you use that stuff.

Re:Night Soil (2)

necro81 (917438) | about 7 months ago | (#46140457)

The key difference in this day and age is that the input and output streams are no longer co-located. Back when 85% of people were farmers or otherwise associated with agriculture, and only a small percentage of people lived in urban areas, getting the waste back to the fields was trivial. Now, with few people on farms and the majority of people living in cities, there can be huge geographic distances between where resources are consumed (the fields) and where they are disposed of (sewage treatment plants). Getting these reconnected will not be quick or easy. But getting concentrated nutrients from sewage waste will certainly help. Trainloads of field-ready fertilizer leaving cities - just as trains and trucks of grain, meat, and produce come in - would go a long way to restoring balance.

Re:Night Soil (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 7 months ago | (#46140875)

You make a good point. IIRC it takes a lot more animal manure (in weight and volume) to fertilize a field than artificial fertilizer. That wasn't a problem when many or most farms raised both livestock and crops (I believe the Amish still do it that way). If they're far apart though transportation costs and energy become a problem, which I imagine is the same whether you're using livestock or human waste. I wonder if that's less of an issue with urine though? How much energy would be required to evaporate it down to where it's more concentrated? Could it be done with solar, for example? Also, if this works with human urine, how would it work with livestock urine?

Re:Night Soil (1)

ramk13 (570633) | about 7 months ago | (#46142975)

Sewage sludge has been recycled as a fertilizer as long as there have been wastewater treatment plants. The modern problem is that the sludge contains significant concentrations of heavy metals which can't be broken down biologically or thermally. Those metals then end up back on farmland if the sludge is used as fertilizer. It's still commonly used for that purpose though. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S... [wikipedia.org]

Pathogens - breaking the cycle. (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | about 7 months ago | (#46143235)

Using any animal's waste as a fertilizer for its food is a recipe for a health disaster. Some pathogens are extremely hard to denature. Two examples come immediately to mind: Hepititis viruses and CJD prions (a human version of "mad cow"). Even if a process were effective, any failure, even short term, becomes an immediate disaster.

Instead, if waste is to be recycled, it is far better to recycle it as nutrients for a different species, the more different the better. For instance, human waste might fertrilize animal feed for herbivores, which are substantially different in biochemistry. (A better technique, of course, would be to recycle human waste into something useful other than the leading-to-humans food chain and replace the "lost" nutrients with smething newly-synthized. (An example would be replacing h from the bacteria in the root nodes of soybeans or clover.)

(The same applies to plants. For instrance: In our garden we rotate crops: Freshly composted soil might have tomatoes grown in it the first year, then only veggies that aren't susceptible to common diseases of tomatoes the second year, and so on. We'll typically run the soil through a composter again before once more growing tomatoes in it. Leaves from the fruit trees are removed in the fall rather than being allowed to compost beneath them, to eliminate things like apple worms and peach/plum/nectarine leaf-curl fungus. The trees might be fertilized, instead, by composted waste of other vegatables, while the tree leaves are sent to a recycling arrangement far away from our orchard.)

Re:Pathogens - breaking the cycle. (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | about 7 months ago | (#46143293)

An example would be replacing h from the bacteria in the root nodes of soybeans or clover.)

Should have been:

An example would be replacing lost fixed nitrogen with newly fixed nitrogen derived from the bacterial in the root nodes of soybeans or clover.

===

If you must recycle an organism's waste into its food supply, the more, and more diverse, steps it goes through on the way, the less chance for pathogens to also be "recycled" into new infections.

We flush more (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139653)

The amount of drugs and toxic things we flush are more of a problem than simply reformulating urine.

Re:We flush more (1)

i kan reed (749298) | about 7 months ago | (#46141957)

It's not entirely an untrue point, but: define "toxic things" because that's a pretty ambiguous term.

Re:We flush more (2)

cusco (717999) | about 7 months ago | (#46143027)

Viagra and several antidepressants are now at high enough levels where they can be detected in rivers downstream from sewage treatment plants.

Ick is right (1)

Cornwallis (1188489) | about 7 months ago | (#46139655)

Given the penchant for drug use in this state I wonder how much would make it into the food stream?

Re:Ick is right (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139685)

I can't believe the penchant for drug use in your state!

Re:Ick is right (4, Informative)

SirGarlon (845873) | about 7 months ago | (#46139719)

Not just illegal drugs, either. Antidepressants have been found [salon.com] in urban drinking water supplies.

Re:Ick is right (1)

rossdee (243626) | about 7 months ago | (#46139837)

Antidepressants have been found [salon.com] in urban drinking water supplies."

Who drinks tap water?

Unless you have one of those osmotic filters

Re:Ick is right (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139861)

Your bottled water is tap water run through a charcoal filter. So, you are drinking tap water everyday.

Re:Ick is right (2)

operagost (62405) | about 7 months ago | (#46140263)

Reverse osmosis is not running it "through a charcoal filter". If you look at bottled water that is taken from a municipal supply, it's always been through reverse osmosis and had a tiny amount of salt added to it so that it's not totally tasteless. Of course, better bottled water comes from springs, and that information is also on the label.

Re:Ick is right (2)

dunkelfalke (91624) | about 7 months ago | (#46139935)

I always trink tap water at home. Seems that the antidepressants in the urban drinking water are only in homeopathic quantities, because I am still a very unhappy person altogether.

Re:Ick is right (1)

bigfinger76 (2923613) | about 7 months ago | (#46140515)

You do realize that not all people live in cities, correct?

It's a Commie plot! (1)

DarthVain (724186) | about 7 months ago | (#46142935)

That's why I only drink grain alcohol...

The chemistry works out... (3, Interesting)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about 7 months ago | (#46139657)

I wonder what they plan to do about all the neat stuff that we excrete through the kidneys? Stock urine is harmless enough, if distasteful; but the list of drugs and other interesting substances that are either directly excreted, or have metabolites that are, isn't a short one. Probably not something you'd want bioaccumulating...

Re:The chemistry works out... (5, Informative)

mellon (7048) | about 7 months ago | (#46139679)

From the FAQ:

What about pharmaceutical residues in the urine? When we take prescription or over-the-counter drugs, a portion of the dose passes through us unchanged and is excreted in our urine. When we use flush toilets that are connected to sewers, these residual drugs pass largely unchanged through the treatment plant in about twenty-four hours and then go directly into rivers, lakes, or the ocean, where they can harm sensitive aquatic life and end up in our drinking water. If we spread the urine on agricultural land instead, the robust soil ecosystem has a chance to break down the drugs and biodegrade them over a much longer period of time, greatly reducing or eliminating their levels before they ever reach a body of water. In this way, soil application is a great improvement over current practice. On the other hand, plants have the ability to absorb some pharmeceuticals, which could potentially affect people eating crops grown with urine. We plan to investigate pharmaceutical levels in crop plants and, if necessary, test methods of removing pharmaceuticals from urine before using it as a fertilizer.

Re:The chemistry works out... (2)

damaki (997243) | about 7 months ago | (#46139727)

That is funny, because it is already known to be a problem for reprocessed water [nih.gov] .
Let's do the same for what we eat, and let's make the humanity sterile, those endocrine thingies only affect pussies.

Coffee (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139785)

That is funny, because it is already known to be a problem for reprocessed water [nih.gov] .

Let's do the same for what we eat, and let's make the humanity sterile, those endocrine thingies only affect pussies.

Dude, go get another cup of coffee or something. The GP addressed all of your points.

Re:Coffee (1)

operagost (62405) | about 7 months ago | (#46140283)

Not really. The layman's version: instead of performing lab testing, they're going to feed the urine to the crops and hope for the best.

Re:Coffee (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140637)

Yeah really, and that is not what they are doing at all.

Re:Coffee (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46141535)

Not really. The layman's version: instead of performing lab testing, they're going to feed the urine to the crops and hope for the best.

As opposed to highly scientific crap like RoundUp, that is now in our drinking water too? That's after being assured that such a scenario was impossible.

I'll prefer crops grown on piss and its "impurities" than anything modern science tries to produce.

PS. Yes, I know RoundUp is not a fertilizer.

Re:The chemistry works out... (5, Interesting)

Noe-Hays (3523525) | about 7 months ago | (#46139831)

Abe Noe-Hays here--Research Director at the Rich Earth Institute [richearthinstitute.org] . One thing I should add is that starting this spring we are participating in a two-year study (headed by the University of Michigan) measuring the levels of pharmaceuticals in urine collected from public toilets, and tracking the movement of those pharmaceuticals into soil, groundwater, and plant tissues. The soil ecosystem is very good at breaking down complex compounds, but some drugs are considerably more resistant to decomposition than others and we are interested to see how they behave. If you want to follow our progress, please sign up for our newsletter! [richearthinstitute.org] Thanks, mellon, for quoting our FAQ into the conversation.

Help with discussion? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140019)

I whole-heartedly applaud this kind of research.

However, discussing these matters suffers from the same problem as discussing genetically modified organisms in food production: I personally think the technology and research is outstanding and worth public support, but I don't trust companies to do a good enough job considering the long-term effects. Anyone familiar with current business models knows that a year is a long time, and a decade is almost unimaginably long time for current short-term market driven policies. There simply is no market force to safeguard future; short term gains drive our current financial systems completely. Voicing this out causes one to be labelled anti-technology, anti-progress, small-minded conspiracy theorist.

(I brought up genetically modified organisms, because I've waited for the nutritionally enhanced varieties to become available on the market. They haven't. All you get is higher tolerances for specific chemicals, and unsupported claims about higher yields.)

In short, there is nothing wrong about the research or even the idea, I only fear shoddy implementations similar to those in other industries, and the enormous risks associated with long-term damage.

If you have any idea how to clearly voice this dichotomy in a way that does not cause oen to be labelled a luddite, conspiracy theorist, or tin-foil-hat wearing crazy; or to veer the discussion away from the point, I'd be extremely grateful.

Or do you think researchers should never worry about how their research is applied in practice?

Re:Help with discussion? (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 7 months ago | (#46140975)

I only fear shoddy implementations similar to those in other industries

Not the GP, but you raise good points. The only way to deal with that is described by what some consider a dirty word: regulation. We have regulation of food and water quality, which especially in the former is far from perfect, but a helluva lot better than a completely unregulated situation. This seems like something that should be regulated in a similar way. The trick is to establish guidelines and regulations before this becomes a major industry.

Re:The chemistry works out... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46142113)

I have encountered literature indicating that misfolded prions in human waste may pose a credible risk to human health when used to grow crops for human consumption or in public areas where consumption of soil may occur.

I'd be interested in hearing your position on this issue.

Re:The chemistry works out... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46143727)

So even if we stopped using antibiotics in feed for cattle (that then creates superbugs that the antibiotics cannot kill), the simple fact that they get excreted by us will ensure that superbugs evolve in the wild.

But this whole thing is why pissing in the garden or on the roots of plants is good for them... and you are indeed "watering the plants."

Re:The chemistry works out... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140161)

Not just ingested chemicals. Toilet bowl cleaners, discarded household chemicals, paint, cosmetics, food dyes, commercial/industrial waste... Anything anyone ever flushes or pours down the drain, from a home or business.

There was recently news about Whole Foods being caught accepting food grown on sewage without informing their customers. In a modern society where thousands of chemicals are commonly used by people who generally don't even know what those chemicals are, even if the urine were separated out from the sewage -- which doesn't seem feasible -- it's potentially toxic waste.

recycling programs (1)

verbatim (18390) | about 7 months ago | (#46139661)

How long until municipalities have a mandatory yellow box?

Re:recycling programs (2)

mellon (7048) | about 7 months ago | (#46139687)

Yours doesn't? Why does your town hate mother earth?

Re:recycling programs (1)

jellomizer (103300) | about 7 months ago | (#46142643)

Single Stream is the way to go.

Hmmm ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139665)

I see a business opportunity here. "Please piss here to help feed the hungry" signs are going to finally start selling like hotcakes.

Your in? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139669)

OK so let me get this straight,...you want me to pee on your vegetables?

Better to distill a fine scotch whiskey (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139681)

http://m.slashdot.org/story/140486 (slashdot)

Makes Sense (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139693)

I've been peeing on trees in the forest whenever I go camping for a long time... and they seem to be doing well enough.

Re:Makes Sense (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 7 months ago | (#46139999)

Your contribution is small. Does a bear piss in the forest?

Re:Makes Sense (1)

RaceProUK (1137575) | about 7 months ago | (#46140307)

Your contribution is small. Does a bear piss in the forest?

Only if they haven't installed a lav under the stairs.

Re:Makes Sense (1)

redneckmother (1664119) | about 7 months ago | (#46141905)

Is a bear Catholic?

Why don't people just stop breeding so much? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139737)

I'm fed up of being told that stuff has to happen because of overpopulation.

Phosphorous? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139743)

It's called "phosphorus". Gaah.

unfortunately... (1)

buddyglass (925859) | about 7 months ago | (#46139759)

Human waste is chock full of pharmaceuticals. Link [wikipedia.org] .

Again and again... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139797)

C'mon folks!!! Milorganite - since 1925 - "Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen"!

Just like Soylent Green... "It comes from People!!!"

Is It Safe? (3, Interesting)

rsmith-mac (639075) | about 7 months ago | (#46139799)

Since epidemiology is well outside my area of expertise, I have to ask: would this be safe?

With artificial fertilizers we don't have to be concerned about the purity of the material, whereas if we were to use natural fertilizers (animal or otherwise) it introduces all of the impurities and other undesirable byproducts that come with waste. And if we're talking about human waste in particular, does that mean this would create a new cycle for pathogens? Or is there a way to process waste to remove pathogens?

Re:Is It Safe? (1)

ChunderDownunder (709234) | about 7 months ago | (#46139903)

It sounds similar to a composting toilet [wikipedia.org] , but on a larger scale. Certainly not a new idea if you've ever used a bathroom in a national park. Microbes love our excrement...

I believe it's possible to purchase a kit, at some cost, to retrofit one's house to use a self-contained system. Various environmental standards, obviously, need to be met to ensure the safety of one's backyard vegie patch.

As for toxins and pathogens, I think it's dependent on the amount of filtration, i.e. you're not pouring your poo directly on the garden, you're letting it break down for months and the composting should, in theory, kill the nasties.

Re:Is It Safe? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140519)

Most national park toilets aren't composting, btw; they're just bit pits that get trucked away. Actual composting toilets are much nicer, since the stuff is being broken down, turning into dirt, and not just putrifying.

Re:Is It Safe? (1)

erroneus (253617) | about 7 months ago | (#46139947)

Artificial fertilizers I would be more concerned about. We humans like to simply our understanding of things and then we act on them based on our simplified models. "Pure fertilizer" would likely be missing some important 'other things' which generally occur within nature. To put it in ways which are more understandable:

Homegrown, organic tomatoes are absolutely rich, meaty and flavorful. Industrial tomatoes are red balls with squishy water in them. They lack texture and flavor. I tend to thing there are 'other things' which are missing in the industrial produce. So in reality, this type of push could literally boost the quality of output. (Note that I don't say quantity... good food for people is also attractive to pests of all sorts.)

Re:Is It Safe? (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 7 months ago | (#46142457)

It's a shame no well blinded study has ever fact your belief that 'organic' tomatoes taste better.
It underscores your ignorance of what organic is.

" We humans like to simply our understanding of things and then we act on them based on our simplified models."
think upon that before posting.

Re:Is It Safe? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140191)

I don't know any parasites that use urine as part of their life cycle, but there are an enormous number that use feces. Any program that tried to incorporate feces would have to be very careful - if the "making it safe" process gets too complicated, then we're back to square one.

That said, I doubt it would be that hard - I'm pretty sure there are already plenty of sustainable farming practices going on in developing nations that already use "nightsoil" as part of the regimen. The trick would be making it useful in western monoculture.

Re:Is It Safe? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140503)

If done properly, it is very safe. If you seal up a container of pee, it gets to a very low pH in a couple of days; letting it sit (for a week, I think?) makes it completely sterile. Hot composting will sterilize poo -- being above 150 F for a few weeks in a biologically active pile kills off even tough worm eggs.

Also, consider the alternative: currently, in most places all that stuff goes into the waterways -- usually, after treatment, but it's pretty often that a rain storm or malfunction or something will overflow the system, sending raw sewage off to the rivers and beaches. This gets a fair number of people sick every year. What are you more likely to do: go swimming at the beach, or eat dirt in an agricultural field? So, where would you rather have your poo end up?

Re:Is It Safe? (3, Informative)

RedBear (207369) | about 7 months ago | (#46144167)

Since epidemiology is well outside my area of expertise, I have to ask: would this be safe?

With artificial fertilizers we don't have to be concerned about the purity of the material, whereas if we were to use natural fertilizers (animal or otherwise) it introduces all of the impurities and other undesirable byproducts that come with waste. And if we're talking about human waste in particular, does that mean this would create a new cycle for pathogens? Or is there a way to process waste to remove pathogens?

Having recently become much more educated than I used to be on this subject, I now find it hilarious (and a bit frightening) how disconnected modern society has become from good old Mother Nature. If you'll stop and think a moment you'll realize that we live on the surface of a planet where quadrillions of living organisms have been living, dying, urinating and defecating for billions of years, and until a veritable blink-of-an-eye ago there were no "waste treatment facilities" anywhere to be found. The very fact that our civilization requires artificial "waste treatment facilities" in order to survive is a symptom of just how totally disconnected we are from the natural cycles of life. Every living thing that has ever existed here for billions of years has lived by recycling nutrients from the bodily decay or waste products of other living things.

So, asking "if there is a way" to process waste to remove pathogens is a question that should answer itself now that we are all in the correct mindset. The answer of course is that nature _is_ a gigantic and unbelievably effective and efficient waste reprocessing facility. Step out of the door of your artificial housing construct and walk to any nearby location where you might be able to grow a plant and look down. That stuff underneath your feet is called "dirt". It's composed of minerals extracted from the air by plants, leeched out of rocks by water, and more rock bits ground up by glaciers. But most importantly it's composed of lots of chemicals and compounds that either used to be part of the body of some animal or plant, or was a waste product of a living organism. If dirt, the infinitely reprocessed waste product of billions of previous excreting organisms, was going to hurt us we'd already all be long dead.

The bacteria and other organisms that live in dirt evolved to live on the kinds of things we refer to as "waste". They reprocess it into yummy fertilized soil that plants love to grow in, and in the process kill off all the things we call "pathogens" that evolved to live inside us and are excreted in our waste. The worms and soil bacteria and the eventual heat of the full composting process creates a perfectly safe fertilizer from any kind of animal "manure", including human. They even have a name for the manure that comes from us: Humanure.

Using this purifying ability of nature, we can even make cheap and highly effective water filters [wikipedia.org] that work by letting the soil bacteria in a column of sand kill off the "pathogens" in contaminated water as it trickles through the filter. The soil bacteria just gobbles up and destroys everything that we would refer to as a pathogen. Chemical toxins of course are a different matter. Many of those are unnatural to the environment and have to be dealt with in other ways, unfortunately. But animal waste? No problem. Nature takes care of that quite easily.

Now, the issue of urine separation turns out to be interesting for multiple reasons. Using urine separating toilets not only makes it immensely easier to separately process and use the urine for fertilizer, it also allows one to have a composting toilet that doesn't smell bad and holds a surprising amount of waste before it needs to be emptied. Apparently that horrible latrine, RV/boat holding tank smell is caused not by the solid waste itself but by mixing the urine and solids. Separating the urine and throwing a layer of something organic like peat moss over the solids creates a toilet that at worst has a mild "earthy" smell, like a forest on a rainy day. There's a great composting toilet design for boats/cabins that works this way called the C-Head [c-head.com] . I find its design and functionality much more appealing than the many non-urine-separating styles of composting toilets on the market. There are some super-gross YouTube vids of how such toilets, uh, "work".

There's a guy, Michael Reynolds, who has been building homes he calls Earthships [earthship.com] for more than four decades now that require no public infrastructure connection. They process all the generated wastewater on-site using a built-in greenhouse full of plants and trees. Earthships don't even require a septic tank except to comply with some local building codes. And yes, that greenhouse includes food plants, and the food plants grown in wastewater are perfectly safe to eat. They've been tested by the same government facilities that test city water supplies and they come back with far lower levels of pathogens than you'll find in your local grocery store's produce. I'd highly recommend that anyone interested in this subject get some of Reynolds' books and videos. It's pretty fascinating stuff. They also do a lot of great work teaching people in super poor and devastated areas like Jamaica, Guatemala, Africa and Indonesia how to build their own Earthship type buildings for homes and schools. Like this [youtube.com] . Good stuff. Also look for "Garbage Warrior" on YouTube. There's a full-length documentary.

So, yeah. Mother Nature is amazing, and we need to quit wasting mind-boggling amounts of energy inefficiently trying to artificially recreate what it already does just fine. Like processing "waste" (aka "nutrients") into "food". I mean, that's practically the very definition of what "nature" is!

What a Luddite (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139821)

When we send our fully automatic private space 3D printers to the asteroid belt because of our selfless billionaires, he'll feel pretty silly when the first space harvest comes back from asteroid Branson and asteroid Musk.

One word: Milorganite (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46139829)

Milorganite is manufactured by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. The District captures waste water from the metropolitan Milwaukee area, including local industries such as MillerCoors. This water is then treated with microbes to digest nutrients that are found in it. Cleaned water is then returned to Lake Michigan. The resulting microbes are then dried, becoming Milorganite fertilizers. The Milorganite program is one of the world’s largest recycling efforts.

Who's laughing now? (1, Funny)

ausekilis (1513635) | about 7 months ago | (#46139853)

Now the angry people of the world can say they're "being helpful" when they take a crap on their neighbors lawn. Not so sure the cops would agree, however...

Old Tech. (1)

Lumpy (12016) | about 7 months ago | (#46139869)

Honestly this has been done for centuries, http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb... [amazon.com] and there are tons of books on it.

This is important but also concerning (1)

erroneus (253617) | about 7 months ago | (#46139917)

Back in ancient Japanese times, the smell of feces was referred to as the smell of life. A rather positive spin on things but it's also important to note that they actually did what is being discussed in the article. They used human fecal matter in their farming.

But what about today? The stuff we eat isn't exactly "mostly vegetarian" as was the case in ancient Japan. Also, the stuff we eat isn't entirely natural. Putting the additive and preservative rich fecal matter into the soil might yield less than optimal results. And all the other drugs and stuff we ingest adds to the complication. Finally, the typical pollution we take in will also find its way into our waste. Today's human waste isn't exactly what I would call "entirely natural."

So I hope they do their homework on this. At the very least, feed it to a bunch of worms for processing. If the worms can process it, perhaps it's closer to being safe afterward than if they didn't.

Real numbers: urine-to-bread conversion analysis (4, Informative)

Noe-Hays (3523525) | about 7 months ago | (#46139981)

Here's an analysis we did [richearthinstitute.org] on how many pounds of wheat (and loaves of bread) could be grown using only the fertilizer contained in one person's yearly urine output. This figure didn't make it into the National Geographic article, but it's really important for understanding the potential for urine recycling to replace synthetic fertilizers at a large scale. Of course urine-derived fertilizer could be applied to any other food or non-food crops, but we thought the huge pile of bread was the more accessible measure.

And if you look closely at the numbers, you'll see one of the most surprising things of all: that nearly 90% of the nitrogen (and 2/3 or better of the potassium and phosphorus) in human waste is in the urine!

Abe Noe-Hays, Research Director, Rich Earth Institute [richearthinstitute.org]

Ob.Austin_Powers_misquote (1)

ihtoit (3393327) | about 7 months ago | (#46140037)

"Basil, this coffee tastes like shit!"
"...it is shit, Austin."
"Do you kiss your mother with that mouth? ...and this isn't actually that bad... a bit nutty..."

Close the nutrient cycle? (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about 7 months ago | (#46140057)

Researchers Try To "Close the Nutrient Cycle"

I didn't realise it was open. Have they been shooting my poop into space?

No shit? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140093)

Just another attempt at scatological humor.
Waste not, want not, eh?

Cary NC already doing this (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140135)

The Town of Cary sells this already.

This facility takes liquid biosolids, a byproduct of the main wastewater treatment processes, from the North and South Cary Water Reclamation Facilities and converts them, using heat, to a dry BB-sized pellet used as fertilizer. These pellets meet strict state and federal guidelines required to achieve a Class A EQ (exceptional quality) rating and provides the Town with the most options for safe reuse or cost effective disposal.

From 2006–2008, this facility treated an average of 28 million gallons of biosolids per year and produced an average of 3,100 tons of pellets per year for the agricultural market. The waste generated by a typical family in a year is about 100 pounds of fertilizer.

The Town of Cary markets its round fertilizer pellets under the name Cary Enviro Gems.

http://www.townofcary.org/Departments/utilities/wastewatertreatment/Biosolids_Dryer.htm

Oh great... (1)

operagost (62405) | about 7 months ago | (#46140317)

First, the government gets to regulate our breathing because it contains a greenhouse gas. Now, they're going to regulate our urine because it contains a precursor to ammonium nitrate!

same question in Victoria BC Canada (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140399)

In Victoria, BC, Canada, we dump all our sewage straight into the ocean. Our current treatment is nothing more sophisticated than a 4 mm mesh designed to remove big plastic stuff and pulverize feces into small enough pieces that it isn't recognizable. The pipes go offshore pretty deep so it doesn't end up on the local beaches. A local group brought public attention to this over ten years ago and the local administration has been forced by the Feds to come up with a treatment plan. However, what to do with the treated waste is question due to the pharmaceuticals and other toxins. We're also dealing with a bunch of old farts who think that "it worked well enough for the last 100 years, it will work well enough for the next few decades that I'm alive" because building a treatment plant isn't cheap.

Terrible idea (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140527)

Omnivorous solid waste makes bad fertilizer because of all of the protein waste. The energy wasted to refine human waste into fertilizer would be better spent on increasing the population of herbivorous livestock to produce usable solid waste for fertilizer. It would also have the effect of driving down meat prices, which have been on the dramatic rise for quite a while now.

Recycled food. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140593)

"Eat recycled food; Its good for the environment, and okay for you."

Turns out the old way is better (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140749)

Farmer digs hole, puts outhouse over it. Problem solved in most cases. The only place this activity should be restricted is where the soil is such that pathogens perk into other people's wells. The governments in most places require fancy septic systems and/or hook-up to sewers...

Earth Ships (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140751)

Maybe they should talk to these guys.. they've been building farming from waste into houses for years.

http://earthship.com/

They neglect to discuss all the drugs in urine (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46140831)

anti-depressants.. and all the other drugs.. not sure I'd want that fertilizing my food.

I use one of these... (2)

whistlingtony (691548) | about 7 months ago | (#46141827)

I use a composting toilet in my house. I use one of These to seperate out my urine. http://www.ecovita.net/privy50... [ecovita.net]

Poo goes into a bucket lined with a compostable bag. I sprinkle coconut coir on it. Urine is sterile (and it's what smells bad) so it goes out a pipe and into a greywater system (basically a french drain in the yard).

It works like a charm. The solids are composted for a year to make sure any nasty bugs that might be in there die, and I put the waste on the roses and not the garden. No Problem.

Re:I use one of these... (2)

geekoid (135745) | about 7 months ago | (#46142423)

Wow, bring back all the crap that use to kill thousands of people a year. Well done on your drive to take us to the dark ages.

Urine is NOT sterile. That myth needs to die in a fire.
There are many disease that can appear through urine, even in health people.
http://www.sciencedaily.com/re... [sciencedaily.com]

Untreated solid waste also carries many disease. I"m not sure why you think the magically go away.

A lot of places (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 7 months ago | (#46142385)

already do this.

Tracking (1)

ThatsNotPudding (1045640) | about 7 months ago | (#46142627)

One of the last untapped frontiers for the Moral Police and Insurance companies is tracking the waste products of individuals. It will be rolled out on the promise of health monitoring and driven in wedge-like with the good ol' refrain 'if you've done nothing wrong...'.

It will of course start out targeting minorities getting any type of public assistance as no one (not nearly enough) will care about their rights and privacies.

Recycling is Evil. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46144143)

Don't you people get it? Read "the tragedy of the commons" you nerds! Everything shared is bad, and making things scarce is adding value.

We, your elected (snicker) officials, are working night and day to make sure that nothing is free or in common, for the good of the species. Unfortunately air and water are proving difficult to get rid of, but our ongoing efforts to increase resource scarcity by converting petroleum and gas reserves into toxic waste are rapidly converting the air and water into unuseable poisons. Don't stand in the way of this great work!

AMERICA!!!!!!

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